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Professor gives students a critical look at history through literature

Joe Keith, assistant professor of English, is a post-colonialist scholar who joined BU last fall. He wants to expose students to literature in such a way that they find connections between themselves, American culture and the marginalized world.
Joe Keith’s belief that literature can be a place to recover global memories and experiences often forgotten by the nation has led him to teach students through the lens of literature how American and British Cold War world policy and culture shaped the entire world.

By reading novels and essays from the two decades following World War II, students in the assistant professor of English’s classes not only grasp a new understanding of literature, but also learn how American culture is profoundly shaped by its connection to the rest of the world.

“I think students have a real hunger for seeing broader international and global connections between the United States and U.S. culture and the world,” said Keith, who joined BU last fall. “Literature often bears witness to formerly disavowed knowledges, such as colonial or imperial histories, that the nation would rather forget.”

In his classes, students learn how novels from the Cold War, for example, reflect broader international discourses by reading them in tandem with political and historical texts from the period. He recently assigned Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American alongside Harry Truman’s second inaugural address in order to show how American “benevolence” and the world policy of development was reshaping the entire Third World.

Through assignments, students learn that the politics of American literature and culture during the period were defined not only by the cultural Cold War but also by the struggles of writers and intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Frantz Fanon and C.L.R. James. They look beyond the Cold War model and understand the emerging global conflict in terms of north/south rather than merely east/west and defined “freedom” as the goal of struggle against racism and colonialism rather than the former Soviet Union. The Cold War period, Keith said, marked an extremely crucial time for the United States, which then redefined its entire relationship with the world.

Keith traces his own interest first to his undergraduate years at Hampshire College in Massachusetts — then to graduate school at Columbia University, where he first encountered the influence of Edward Said, whose work and model of intellectual practice first inspired him to enter academia.

“It really encouraged me to think about the importance of understanding culture in its impure and worldly connections, and what it might mean to bring these often marginalized world connections, such as the whole question of empire to the forefront of studying U.S. literature and culture,” he said.

Keith’s interest in global perspectives fits well at Harpur College, both from its student body and academic pursuits, such as the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations; the Global Studies Integrated Curriculum; or the newly created Global Track, which was recently implemented by the English Department. Keith has also been working on a larger project called Cold War Cosmopolitanisms, which examines writers and intellectuals who find themselves politically, culturally or racially exiled from the United States during the early Cold War era. He strives to show how these people turn their displacement, both imagined and real, to forge new forms of identity and belonging that aren’t tied to the nation.

One writer Keith explores is C.L.R. James, a writer and intellectual from Trinidad whom the United States imprisoned on Ellis Island and later deported as an “undesirable” because of his political activities. While in prison, James wrote Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, in which he imagines Moby Dick from the perspective of the crew. Keith writes how James uses his alien status to resituate the canonical American novel in a global frame and find in it a non-national model of belonging in the world.

Keith said his greatest reward lies in helping students make the connection between theoretical ideas and literature, where “they become more critical thinkers about literature, the world, and themselves.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08